It's easy to have a love/hate relationship with Yom Kippur. The anticipation of being hungry all day is enough to cause at least a little dread in most of us. Don’t let that stop you. Yom Kippur is a chance to take an exquisite deep dive inward so you can focus on the big picture, like what kind of person you were this past year and where you can use some fixing up. The opportunity for this type of introspection is rare and beautiful and TBH, the hunger pangs are never as bad as we think they’ll be.

JewBelong's Cheat Sheet will help you get through the day, so you don't "cheat" yourself out of everything the holiday has to offer.

It's hard enough to be a Jew without you busting a guy's balls because his head isn't covered.

No More Grudges

Seriously - Who Doesn't Need A Reset Once A Year?

Think of Yom Kippur as a transformational retreat, a little like a fabulous yoga get-away without the yoga. By the time Yom Kippur rolls around, you have theoretically asked for forgiveness from everyone in your life and forgiven anyone you were mad at, e.g. no more holding grudges. (You can read about this in the Rosh Hashanah section.) This leaves you with one last person to deal with… yourself. It’s powerful stuff and the reason that so many Jews who don’t observe any other Jewish holidays, except maybe Rosh Hashanah, observe Yom Kippur.

Many people say that between the fasting, which can help put you in kind of an altered state, in a good way, and the focus on being a better person, Yom Kippur is also when we are closest to God/Spirit/the essence of our souls. If it sounds a little age-ish, that’s okay – it kind of is. Speaking of God, this is also the day he/she/whatever you believe/don’t believe, decides who will be sealed in the Book of Life and gets to live for another year. Try not to worry though, because we have an entire day (actually, 25 hours) to ask for forgiveness for all the sins of the past year, and if that’s still not enough time, a basic Jewish idea is that God/Spirit will always want to forgive anyway, not just on Yom Kippur.

Families and friends often get together for a meal before starting the fast. It’s traditional to light candles and recite the Blessing After The Meal to mark the beginning of the holiday. (Pro tip: Eating a ton at that pre-fast meal won’t help you feel less hungry the next day. It might even make it worse!)

When you break your fast, don’t be surprised if the top of your mouth hurts. It sounds weird, but it's a thing.

Synagogue Or Nah?

Fasting While Catching Up on Emails Will Only Get You So Far

If you’ve spent even a little time on JewBelong, you know we’re not synagogue pushers. You do you. But while we understand that synagogue isn’t for everyone, Judaism is at its core, communal religion. So even though you’re dealing with yourself and God on Yom Kippur, it’s hard to get the most out of the holiday by yourself. For instance, staying home from work and catching up on your emails while not eating all day is only going to get you so far. When it comes to Yom Kippur, there is a lot to be said for the act of communal prayer, even if you don’t believe in God. It’s hard not to feel the energy that’s created by a room full of people who are also working on forgiveness and thinking about the kinds of people they want to be. And, many times, rabbis bring their A-game. Most of them have been working on their sermons for a long time and usually come up with some thought-provoking stuff. If going to a synagogue just isn’t your thing or you can’t get to one, there are plenty of synagogues who stream their services.

If you do go to services, here are some things you might want to know about in advance:

  • Yom Kippur services start with Kol Nidre, which means all vows in Aramaic. The basic idea is that the Kol Nidre prayer cancels any oaths that we made directly with God the prior year so that we can start over. For instance, if you made an oath to stop losing your temper all the time, and then you didn’t, you annul that oath so that you aren’t starting the new year with that same promise in place. Think of Kol Nidre as an important part of starting your new year with a clean slate. It doesn’t annul oaths with other people though. You need to deal with that stuff person-to-person.
  • You may see people wearing white. It’s to symbolize purity and renewal, and a physical way to feel connected to the holiday. Another reason is that Jews are traditionally buried wrapped in a white tallit so wearing white is said to remind us of our mortality. Honestly, it also cuts down the worry of what to wear to synagogue. Some synagogues can look a bit like a fashion show and if you decide to wear white on Yom Kippur, you can pretty much wear whatever you want.
  • The shofar! The end of Yom Kippur is one of the most dramatic moments of all Jewish ritual. The holiday ends with one loooong blast from the shofar which makes a loud, high-pitched sound, sort of like a bugle. It’s meant to be a little jolting, and it is. It will wake you up and help you feel like you are part of something deep, historical and far bigger than yourself. You’ll need to stay until the end of the service to experience it, but it is worth it.

 

We have a Yom Kippur Cheat Sheet. But it's not really cheating so at least that's one thing you won't have to atone for.

Forgiveness

Even God Can't Forgive You For Lying To Your Mom

Yom Kippur only addresses the sins or wrongdoings we commit against God, not the ones we commit against other people. To make up for sins against people, you need to seek reconciliation and forgiveness directly. Like, you can’t ask God to forgive you for lying to your mother. You need to ask forgiveness for that. According to tradition though, if you apologize three times to someone, and you really mean it, you have done your best to make amends. You don’t have to keep apologizing. You can go into Yom Kippur knowing that you’ve done what is required.

Rosh Hashanah without forgiveness is like a surgeon without a God complex.

Customs And Activities

What Else Can I Do To Make Sure My Slate Is Really Clean

Introspection, fasting and prayer are the biggies, but don’t stop there. Here’s a list of other ideas to help make the most of your spiritual reset:

  • Some people abstain from anything to do with the body (showering, exercise, sex, wearing makeup, etc.). They also give up all other typical day-to-day comforts, like electricity, and driving. (It’s a little like strict Shabbat rules with a fast and a whole lot of praying.)
  • Light a yahrzeit candle (a candle which burns for 24 hours – you can get them at many grocery stores) or visit a cemetery to remember a loved one.
  • Do some good deeds (tzedakah). Just look around you. Help a neighbor, visit your grandma, help someone who is struggling, give money to a cause you’ve been meaning to support, adopt a dog if you’ve been thinking about it… you get the idea.
  • Worth repeating: Apologize. To friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, etc. for the things you’ve done, either intentionally or unintentionally, that were hurtful.
  • Plan to enjoy a break-the-fast-meal with others. Most synagogues have one, or if that’s not your idea of fun, maybe organize a small dinner. The traditional meal is simple – often a light meal of dairy and pareve foods, such as kugel, bagels, eggs, salads, and whitefish and lox. The important part is to share food if you can and be with community. (See section above on doing good deeds. Who do you know that might be alone that would enjoy some company?)

 

Synagogue is also a good place to check out the cute guys in glasses.

Yom Kippur Readings

Heenaynee

-Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the long list of things we want to change about ourselves (after all, we really are our own worst critics). Check out what Rami M. Shapiro, an award-winning writer and speaker on Judaism and spirituality, has to say about his own list…

First line: Here I am. Last line: Heenaynee – Here I am!…

Why Forgive?

-Johann Christoph Arnold

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting or ignoring wrongdoings, but it’s still so important if we want to feel better.

First line: Forgiveness is a door to peace and happiness. Last line: Forgiveness is a catalyst creating the atmosphere necessary for a fresh start and a new beginning…

Get Up

-Rabbi Allen Maller

Totally powerful reading! One of the best for the new year.

First line: O Lord, sometimes I feel sad, useless. Last line: Staying on the floor is…

For The Sin We Committed

-Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins

Try to read this with some call and response group interaction. Like the men can read the italics and the women read the non-italics, or everyone under 35 read italics and over 35 read the non-italics. You get the idea. The content of this reading is a little “damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” but really, isn’t that how much of life is?

First line: For the sin we committed by not serving our community. Last line: And for the sin we committed by not loving ourselves and not caring enough for ourselves…

See All 11 Yom Kippur Readings

These readings will add meaning to the holiday whether you've gone to synagogue or not.

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Matzah with butter is delicious!